Lynda E. Boose
From stage productions as well as the so-called film classics, audiences had been accustomed to seeing monolithic Othellos proportioned along the lines of the savage grandiloquence of the Burge-Dexter (Olivier) production or reverberrating with the sheer epic scope of the Orson Welles. Such expectations-which undoubtedly originate in a director's desire to accommodate the exotic hyperbole of this play's title figure-would seem, a priori, to have made even the idea of a made-for-video Othello oxymoronic. 1 But in 1981 Jonathan Miller's rendition, made for the BBC/Time-Life series, gave us just that-an Othello consciously domesticated to the medium of television's 21-inch expectations.
I would not argue that Miller's Othello is an ideal production. For one thing, although hearing Anthony Hopkins speak of “the cannibals and the Anthropophagi” may have resonated with new meanings for a post-Silence of the Lambs audience, the film's failure to cast a black actor in the title role combined with the attempt Miller makes in his broadcast introduction to justify conceiving Othello as a “white Moor” seems-to a 1990s American audience, at least-suspiciously like an attempt to erase the racial issue from the play. But despite even this substantial drawback, I would still argue that, for the ways that Miller's Othello manages to work with rather than (as is too often the case) against the medium for which it was made, it represents a noteworthy instance of transferring/ transforming Shakespeare to video. The Miller Othello has used the very constraints of the medium to generate some of its most inspired suggestions about not only the genesis of sexual violence and the complicity of the world coded in this play as civilized and normative (i.e., “Venice”) but, finally, about the relation between the bedroom tableau to which the play leads and its voyeuristic viewers-between the spectacle of sexualized death and we the supervisors who have, by the time the play ends, indeed demanded to “grossly gape” on it.
There are three particular production strategies through which I propose to read Jonathan Miller's BBC-TV Othello: